E-letter October 2009
In this issue
Welcome to the Women's Voices, our regular e-letter from the Women's Initiatives for Gender Justice. In Women's Voices you will find updates and analysis on political developments, the pursuit of justice, the status of peace talks and reconciliation efforts from the perspective of women's rights activists from four conflict situations — Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Darfur and the Central African Republic (CAR). We are working in these contexts because they are the situations under investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
In addition to Women's Voices, we also produce a regular legal newsletter, Legal Eye on the ICC, with summaries and gender analysis of legal developments, judicial decisions, announcements of arrest warrants and victims' participation before the Court, particularly as these issues relate to the prosecution of gender-based crimes.
With both online e-letters we will also update you about the programmes, legal and political advocacy, campaigns, events, and publications of the Women's Initiatives.
More information about the work of Women's Initiatives for Gender Justice and previous issues of Women's Voices and the Legal Eye can be found on our website at www.iccwomen.org.
On 14 August 2009, Pre-Trial Chamber II decided to grant Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo's request for interim release pending his trial on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Chamber found that continued detention was no longer necessary to guarantee Bemba's appearance at trial, to ensure that he does not obstruct or endanger the investigation of the Court, or to prevent him from participating in the commission of the same or related crimes that are under the jurisdiction of the Court. However, the Chamber delayed implementation of this decision until a State agrees to accept Bemba onto its territory and enforce the conditions of his release.
On 24 August 2009, the Prosecution filed an appeal against the Pre-Trial Chamber's decision, arguing that most of the circumstances justifying Bemba's continued detention have not changed, and some new circumstances — particularly the recent decision confirming the charges against Bemba — now weigh even more strongly against release. Moreover, the Prosecution argued that the Chamber had erred in granting the request without first identifying the State to which Bemba would be released, the conditions of his release, the capacity and willingness of the State to enforce the conditions and ensure that Bemba reappears for trial. On 3 September, the Appeals Chamber granted suspensive effect to the Prosecutor's appeal against the decision, ensuring that Bemba will not be provisionally released until a decision is made on the appeal. The Pre-Trial Chamber subsequently postponed its scheduled hearings where it had planned to solicit the views of the States to which Bemba requested release, the Prosecutor, victims, and the accused himself regarding Bemba's interim release and conditions.
Victims and witnesses expressed understandable concern about the possible release of Bemba. They are waiting for others responsible for crimes committed in CAR to be arrested and are dismayed that the one CAR-related accused in ICC detention may be released.
Consultations conducted by the Women's Initiatives with partners and victims' groups in CAR following the ICC 14 August decision, indicate that victims feel 'traumatised by the decision to release Bemba'. Women's rights activists believe false testimonies are being collected from individuals who are claiming to be victims and are completing ICC victim application forms with incorrect information designed to 'blur the truth and the stories from real victims about what Bemba's men did during the conflict'. Those consulted by Women's Initiatives said they fear that 'they are trying to make the real victims seem like liars'.
It is possible that a confirmation of Pre-Trial Chamber II's decision on the conditional release would provide Bemba and his active and well-resourced supporters with an easy tool for their propaganda. The decision to grant his interim release could be manipulated as a false indication of his innocence in the DRC, where he was a Vice President from 2003-2006 and, as the Court itself recognised, remains a high profile political figure. Victims/survivors believe that the confirmation of charges decision 'increases the temptation to escape and obstruct prosecution' and makes his attempt to 'physically eliminate witnesses' through his network of supporters more likely. Victims are not only asking the Court to keep Bemba in detention, but also to prosecute former CAR President Ange-Felix Patassé, who officially calls himself 'Bemba's father' and, according to Women's Initiatives' partners, is Bemba's accomplice in many of his crimes, including torture and execution.
As feared by victims and activists, the renewed strength of Bemba's supporters has already manifested in violent consequences. In one recent incident, gunmen opened fire on the homes in Kinshasa of Environment Minister José Endundo and Foreign Minister Alexis Thambwe-Mwamba. This attack was reportedly aimed at intimidating these potential witnesses in the case against Bemba. Earlier this year CAR activists expressed the belief that the ICC, despite its flaws, remains an effective instrument in the fight for justice and ending impunity in their country. Bemba's interim release could, in their opinion, lead the public to question the strength of the ICC and its effectiveness in delivering justice.
This is the first test for the Court in applying the criteria for the provisional release of an accused, as provided by the Rome Statute. In analysing the factors weighing for or against release, the Women's Initiatives believes the Court should place a greater emphasis on the history of Bemba's cooperation with the Court prior to his arrest, rather than solely on his cooperation since he has been in custody. Bemba did not surrender voluntarily, on the contrary, he was apprehended and arrested. When considering Bemba's potential flight risk, this fact should be given more weight than his behaviour while in detention.
Bemba has indicated he is willing to abide by 20 conditions if provided with provisional release, but these should not serve as guidelines to the Court. Should the Appeals Chamber allow the interim release to proceed, the Women's Initiatives urges the Pre-Trial Chamber to impose highly restrictive conditions on Bemba due to the very real possibility that he will use the opportunity to abscond or to arrest or intimidate witnesses. At a minimum, the conditions should include:
On 3 July 2009, Lubna Ahmed Hussein, a columnist for the Sudanese daily newspaper Alsahfa and Public Information Officer for the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), was arrested with 13 other women attending a party in Khartoum, on the grounds that she was illegally wearing trousers. The authorities charged her with breaching Article 152 of the Sudanese Penal Code. This provision, in effect since 1991, stipulates that any conduct or clothing in violation of public decency is subject to a punishment of 40 lashes. The Article is vague on the definition of 'indecent clothing' and contravenes the country's Interim National Constitution that came into effect after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005. Despite this, the law is still being used as a powerful tool to harass women on the streets of Khartoum and across Sudan.
According to Lubna, ten of the women arrested have been punished with ten lashes each and fined 250 Sudanese pounds (almost US $100) after a quick summary trial. She also reported that four of the flogged women were non-Muslims from South Sudan and were therefore not punishable under Islamic Law as provided for by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005. Moreover, Lubna reported that three of the women were minors (one 16 and two 17 years old), making them too young to defend themselves in Court and unable to afford legal representation.
Lubna and two other women decided to take the case to trial. She distributed 400-500 invitations to civil society organisations, women's groups, media outlets, human rights organisations, and government ministries. The initial trial took place on 29 July 2009. Lubna renounced the immunity from prosecution to which she was entitled in her capacity as a UN staff member, stating that she was willing to subject herself to prosecution in order to challenge the law.
The judge adjourned the hearing until 4 August. On that date the trial was adjourned once again until 7 September, as the judge said he needed to clarify whether the defendant was immune from prosecution and added that the issue would be referred to the Foreign Ministry.
On 7 September the trial resumed and Lubna was found guilty for wearing 'indecent clothing' under Article 152. The court fined her 500 Sudanese pounds (almost US $200). Lubna reportedly said, 'I won't pay. I'd rather go to prison.' According to Mr Kamal Omar, one of Lubna's lawyers, she was taken to the women's prison in Omdurman.
On 8 September, Lubna was unexpectedly released. Sudanese electronic media reported that the head of the Journalist's Union, Mohyideen Titawi, announced that the Union had paid the fine and received a judge order to release her. Lubna expressed dissatisfaction at this development, saying she had not asked for the fine to be paid and in fact had instructed her friends and family not to pay it.
Titawi said that the union paid the fine because it had a responsibility to 'protect journalists when they are in prison'. Many journalists and observers from Khartoum believe that the journalists union was nudged by the government to pay the fine in hopes of avoiding escalation of the international public relations nightmare created by the case. A journalist who asked not to be named told the Sudan tribune, 'She was a journalist when she was arrested for indecency. Where were Titawi and his union? Did they just now discover that she is a journalist and intervene on her behalf? This is just a face saving move by the government and Titawi was its tool. They don't want to appear like they lost the battle with Lubna. The fact of the matter is that they lost miserably in this scandal.' The Sudanese Journalist Union is widely viewed as a pro-government body. The group was heavily criticised for failing to stand up to the government on press censorship.
The United Nations human rights office said Hussein's conviction violated international law. 'Lubna Hussein's case is in our view emblematic of a wider pattern of discrimination and application of discriminatory laws against women in Sudan,' UN human rights spokesperson Rupert Colville told a news briefing in Geneva. 'No defence witnesses were heard. It is not clear there is a chance to appeal,' he told Reuters. The case of the Sudanese journalist is not uncommon but Lubna has worked to make it public by printing invitations to her trials and showing pictures of how she was dressed when arrested by Public Order Police.
The Women's Initiatives' partners in Khartoum reported that Lubna was not left alone in her protest. On the morning of 7 September, members of women's groups, civil society, and political parties, as well as individuals, started gathering in front of the court premises under the umbrella of the 'No to the oppression of women' initiative, a voluntary group that supports Lubna. This group demands the repeal of Article 152 of the Penal Code, considered by a majority of Sudanese women to be too vague in defining what violates public decency. The Women's Initiatives' partners estimated that around 100 women and 50 men waited outside the court, protesting against discrimination against women and Article 152 in Sudan. As a result of these activities, the police started arresting and beating some women. Three of them, Amira Osman, Amani Gaffar and Sara Abdalrahman, were injured, one of them seriously. Around 10.30 am the police arrested 46 women, charging them with violating public nuisance laws. Several lawyers volunteered to represent them. All those arrested were released at 2.30 pm and held a press conference at the daily newspaper Ajarass Alhurria.
Lubna does not consider her experience to be unique; she sees herself as one representative of all the women who have been flogged during the past 20 years but who were not able to speak out for fear of social stigma. In a recent article she wrote, 'the director of police has admitted that 43,000 women were arrested in Khartoum state in 2008 for clothing offences, it's not just about clothing'. She added, 'the laws under which we live have not modernised with our economy. Despite a new constitution in 2005, a comprehensive peace agreement and the protocol of human rights, women are still constrained — not only in their freedom of dress but also their freedom to work. Journalists are prevented from speaking out and people are detained without reason.'
From 14-16 August 2009, the Women's Initiatives for Gender Justice conducted a consultative meeting and workshop for 20 Sudanese women from Darfur and Khartoum. The meeting took place in an African country that cannot be disclosed for security reasons.
The main purpose of this meeting, Towards Gender Justice and Equal Participation on Darfur Peace Talks/Process, was to work towards ensuring the active participation of women in the ongoing peace process and to mobilise more national NGOs, women's human rights groups and peace activists to engage in work on law reform issues with a special focus on the rape law. The participants were victims/survivors of gender-based violence from internally displaced persons ('IDP') camps inside Darfur, women's human rights organisations and women peace activists, advocates, parliamentarians and media.
The participants were informed about ongoing peace efforts and they identified the gender gaps in these efforts. There was also a comprehensive presentation about the law and procedures affecting women, with special reference to the Sudanese rape law. Participants said the meeting was a great opportunity for them to acquire and share knowledge about women's participation in previous Darfur peace talks/processes. It also provided them with lessons about the challenges ahead and will help in development of a plan to ensure the influential participation of women in the Darfur peace process. The participants also developed strategies on how to lobby and campaign for the reform and mainstreaming of laws affecting women, especially the rape law.
At the end of the meeting, participants collectively decided to name the meeting after the late great Sudanese activist Thoria, as an acknowledgement and recognition of her support of the women of Darfur. Thoria passed away on 11 July 2009 after a long sickness. She was a well-known lawyer and activist from Darfur, committed to women's issues, and she contributed widely through her participation in peace talks and in the legal defence of women victims/survivors. At the time of her passing, Thoria was working as a Human Rights Officer with the United Nation Mission in Darfur (UNAMID). Thoria also worked closely with the Women's Initiatives for Gender Justice, especially during the International Justice for Women Forum organised by the Women's Initiatives in Kampala in October 2008.
On 11 August 2009, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited North Kivu as part of her seven-country, 11-day African tour.
Following an official summit with the Congolese Prime Minister in Kinshasa, Clinton moved to Goma, North Kivu, where she met with the Congolese President Laurent Kabila and MONUC peacekeepers, and visited the 'Heal Africa' hospital, which specialises in the treatment of sexual violence victims. There, Secretary Clinton met with a group of local and international NGO representatives. According to Women's Initiatives' partners who participated in this meeting, Secretary Clinton opened the discussion announcing a new pledge of US $17 million to fund programs aimed at the prevention of sexual and gender-based violence and to assist victims of sexual and gender-based violence in the DRC. She said that the US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues, Melanne Verveer, will focus on increasing efforts to address sexual violence in the DRC. The US funding, according to Secretary Clinton, will provide training for doctors, especially to treat obstetric fistula, as well as medical care and legal support for more than 10,000 women. Nearly US $3 million will be dedicated to the training of police officers, particularly women officers, on how to prevent sexual violence and protect women and girls. Finally, the funding will be used to provide women and frontline workers with equipment and mobile devices to document and report abuses and aggressions.
During the meeting, Congolese women activists spoke about the root causes and consequences of gender-based violence in their country. In particular, according to Women's Initiatives' partners, the speakers offered an analysis of the problems caused not only by widespread insecurity, persistence of impunity, and the illegal mineral trade, but also by the joint military operation Kimia II carried out by the Congolese Army and the UN Peacekeeping Mission (MONUC) against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) militia. Women activists welcomed with great hope Clinton's unprecedented visit, asking her to speak out in the international community about what she witnessed in Goma and not to forget her experiences there.
After listening to the women's reports, the chief US diplomat visited the Mungana IDP camp on the outskirts of Goma, where 18,000 displaced people are currently located. There Secretary Clinton witnessed first hand the dramatic situation of the Congolese population and the plight of 'women and girls in particular who have been victimised on an unimaginable scale, as sexual and gender-based violence has become a tactic of war and has reached epidemic proportions. Some 1,100 rapes are reported each month, with an average of 36 women and girls raped every day.'
During a previous private meeting with President Kabila, Secretary Clinton stressed the importance of the serious and effective involvement of the civil and military authorities in the fight against impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence, and of ensuring that this extends to high-ranking soldiers of the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC). She also announced that the US will cooperate with the Congolese authorities in order to reform and professionalise the military, which too often responds to the lack of pay for months by pillaging and attacking villages and civilians. Secretary Clinton addressed the problem of corruption too, urging the DRC government to take measures to promote good governance.
Read the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's article 'What I saw in Goma', at
On 19 May 2009, women's rights activists in Kinshasa delivered an SOS message to the delegates of the UN Security Council visiting the country about the threats and attacks that activists are subjected to as a result of their work defending and promoting women's rights. The joint statement was delivered by representatives of CAFCO, CENADEP, SOFEPADI, SYFET and RENADEF, and the Women's Initiatives for Gender Justice.
The Security Council diplomats met with President Joseph Kabila to discuss the security situation in the country and the rapprochement since the end of last January between the DRC and Rwanda. In a separate meeting with the parliamentarians, the 15 delegates discussed the situation of human rights in the DRC and the measures needed to strengthen state authority and the internal political process, as well as the next phase of the mandate of MONUC.
The SOS Declaration delivered to the delegates reflected the concerns of women's activists about the extremely dangerous situation in the DRC for women generally, and for women's rights activists in particular. Violence, intimidation and discrimination limit women's ability to participate in public affairs and to contribute actively to the end of the conflict. Three episodes of violence against women activists and their families are listed in the Declaration, to exemplify the climate of constant fear and intimidation in which female women's rights defenders live and work.
The SOS Declaration called upon the UN Security Council Delegates to:
As a result of this initiative, women activists were invited by the embassies of France and Belgium and by MONUC officials to further discuss measures which would improve women's security in the DRC. So far, the meetings have not taken place, as women activists have not received an invitation.
1 ICC-01/05-01/08-T-13-ENG WT, p 25, lines 3 until p 26, line 23.